The Trouble(?) with Gratitude

As has become habit, DearLilyJune, wrote something that made me think.

In her post she referenced a NY Times article (link), “The Selfish Side of Gratitude” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich’s view is that we practice gratitude in a way the self-elevates and rarely involves communication or interaction of any kind.

“All you have to do is generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow”. I have not read several self-help, self-love books, but I have read a couple. These books have encouraged me to acknowledge the good things that have happened to me and write, or state, the things I am grateful for. I have never been coached to interact or communicate directly with the donor.

I can, for example, meditate on how grateful I am that my parents insured I received first-class education without ever communicating this to my parents. Yet, because I have acknowledged it to myself, I am showing gratitude without having ever showed it. And because I have done this, I am allowed to feel better about myself because I can say that, yes, I am a grateful person. Ehrenreich is saying that practices of gratitude can be more internal than external–agreed, they can be.

I do take issue with her comment, “Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion, there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible”.

Saying grace before a meal is not practice I follow unless I am sharing a meal with someone who does practice thanksgiving. “Thanking God is an evasion” is a comment that is authored on a misunderstanding of a key attribute of God; He is omni-everything. He has made all things possible. For a believer, these events made possible through farmers, communities, etc, are all also made possible by God–to thank God is to thank them.

And for the purposes of practicality, how long of prayer would it be if we went down the list of people (and animals!) who make meals possible? Her ‘complaint’ seems naive. Imagine a family who says grace before a meal but the mother, who cooked the meal says, “uhh, aren’t you going to thank me too?” Joel Osteen would argue that it is through God that the mother was able to cook the scrumptious meal.

The next point is when Ehrenreich says, “The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions”. I completely agree with the last two points, those are concrete ways of communicating external gratitude. But, generous tips? I probably wouldn’t have flagged this in my thought process if Ehrenreich had not also raised the issue of money when she criticizes the Greater Good Science Center for not funding “projects to directly improve the lives of poor individuals but [has] spent a great deal […] to improve their attitudes”.

I struggle to articulate my thoughts on this but to suggest that we express our debt via generous tips seems conflicting, and again, someone could argue condescending. A generous tip can express gratitude but an individual could also interpret a generous tip as pity. Her suggestion also assumes that generous tips are universally accepted as a shows of gratitude rather than, for example, not being on the phone during an order, or not being rude or demeaning to a waiter or waitress.

As I said, I do appreciate the context around Ehrenreich points. When practicing gratitude is an only an act between you and yourself,  are you really practicing gratitude? But! If you can’t practice gratitude internally, how do you practice it externally? If I can’t acknowledge that you have done something good, can I express it to someone else?

Just like love, I think gratitude starts with oneself.


That time Joel Osteen dropped several truth bombs on me

Do you talk to yourself the way you talk to other people?

I remember my parents directly and indirectly teaching me how to communicate; what to say, what to not say. It’s something we learn how to do all through life really. Less time, unfortunately, is dedicated to learning how to speak to ourselves. Our intangible thoughts are powerful because they facilitate our relationship with ourselves and with other people. I know I have had less than positive thoughts about a person but it’s all unicorns and rainbows when I speak with them. It’s a little harder to make that switch when you talk to yourself.

When I look back and think about all the things I have said to myself, I am bully. I have picked apart and spat on myself. I think because it’s internal and automatic, it can be hard to control, hard to notice. But the effects are devastating.

Let’s take body image; the less satisfied I have been with my body, the more weight I have gained. If I had noticed this a few years ago, I would have stopped and started yelling compliments at my reflection. My words and my thoughts were negative and they did not reflect what I truly wanted. I wasn’t telling myself that I was healthy, capable of change, beautiful or confident. Instead, I was telling myself that I couldn’t ever lose weight, that I would forever be a slob, and much more. Words matter. As I talked down to myself, I didn’t encourage any positive behavior. In fact, when I spoke negatively, the bad habits and lifestyle that got me to that position were empowered and worse, justified. It was perfectly fine for me to just sit around and eat because, well, I wasn’t ever going to lose weight, that’s what I was telling myself–so there was no need for me to replace my three-topping pizza with a large bowl of kale and dates (or whatever Kate Hudson eats).

Had I changed the conversation I was having with myself sooner, I am confident that I would have experienced different results. As you know, I have been listening to Joel Osteen for several days now and he is having a remarkable effect on me. In The Power of I Am, Osteen says that our words prophesy our future–I think he’s right. It doesn’t mean that if I say, “I will win the lottery tomorrow” I can quit my job today though. Osteen says, “God will release for you what negative words have delayed”.

I can either talk my way to success by believing that the best is coming my way, or I can feed my demise and speak negatively about my future and myself. If I choose the latter, inevitably, my negative words will impact my actions and my attitude. When I started telling myself I was capable of making better food choices, instead of submitting to my thunder thighs (now said lovingly), I was less entised by a slice of pizza (truly!). When I started telling myself, and saying out loud that I was talented, I had a great skill set, my perfect job would find me…I felt less useless, my unemployment wasn’t a burden, it was an opportunity to be creative.

If you’re rolling your eyes saying here’s another bible bumper. My first response would be that I haven’t opened a bible in a long while. I just started listening to a different voice because my own voice had been hurting me for too long. If it helps to replace “God” with “The Universe” or whatever it is you believe in, be my guest. I spent most of my life believing that prayer was activity of the idle, so I will not judge you.

But if you’re repeatedly telling yourself the opposite of what you want, what purpose does that serve? I found that it didn’t serve me, so I changed the conversation.

It’s working.